By Christine Sampson
Sit for a while with members of Pierson High School’s newest student club, Feminists United, and you’re likely to hear a few hot-button words relevant in today’s culture and society come up in conversation.
“Microaggression” refers to subtle, offensive actions or comments made against someone who is different from the person making the comment or action – for instance, a minority or someone of a different gender identity. A young man telling a peer that he “kicks like a girl” during gym class is an example of microaggression that female students might find offensive.
“Stigma” is a negative impression associated with a particular personal characteristic. Among teenagers, there is a stigma often associated with girls’ menstrual periods, for example, often leads to statements such as “What’s wrong with you? You must be getting your period right now.”
And the definition of the word “feminism” simply means the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities – and does not include promoting negativity toward men, as some people might think, which leads to a stigma often associated with being a feminist.
It’s the latter kind of attitude that Feminists United wants to change – and the aforementioned microaggression it wants to stop – through the non-partisan educational campaigns and events it plans to hold at Pierson. With the goal of holding at least one event per month, some of the issues the club is working on include body image positivity, preventing sexual assault, promoting good mental health, raising awareness of workplace issues and rights, and more.
The school was in need of such a club, some of its members said in an interview this week.
At Pierson, some Feminists United members said they have perceived more people seem to support the boys’ sports teams than the girls’ teams. They perceive the girls are always “picked last” for teams in gym class, even the most athletic girls in the school. They said there’s a double standard when it comes to dating: Young men are celebrated as “players” if they date lots of girls, but girls who date lots of boys are shamed as “sluts.”
Junior Hope Brindle said she has observed boys sometimes talk over girls when girls give presentations during classes.
“Once you see the microaggression, it’s incredible,” she said. “I think this group will bring that out there.”
Junior Ava Kiss added, “It’s little stabs about how being a girl is lesser. Now that we’re in this club, we should rearrange societal conceptions about gender.”
Junior Sinead Murray, the club’s vice president, said Pierson students need to be more aware because “we live in a bubble.”
“There’s so much sexism going on in the world,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of misinformation about what a feminist is. . . . Even if a person isn’t part of the club, we want to inform them. We want equality for everyone.”
Sophomore Simone Kessler, the club’s secretary, said, “There’s a need in life for this club, seriously. I come from a family of a whole lot of guys and they’re respectful, but depending on where you come from, women are treated horribly.”
“I want to destroy that stigma that comes with the negative connotation of the word ‘feminist,’” junior Leigh Hatfield said.
Feminists United will hold its first event on Friday, a bake sale in which customers who buy treats will be able to choose their beneficiary: Planned Parenthood, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or LIGALY, for “Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth.” After that, the club will hold a tampon drive to collect hygiene products for homeless shelters, where those items are in high demand. Many of the club’s members will also attend the Women’s March on Washington on Saturday.
Junior Natalie Sepp conceived the idea for the club after watching the documentary “The Hunting Ground,” which chronicles the realities of rampant sexual assault on college campuses.
“It really inspired me and empowered me to educate other women on what is really happening,” Natalie, who is the club president, said. “I was shocked. I thought it was important for other girls my age to know.”
The Sag Harbor School Board approved the club on December 19. Some adjustments had to be made to the club’s initial application to Pierson principal Jeff Nichols. It was originally thought to overlap with in-school programs provided by The Retreat, the domestic violence shelter for women, but Natalie and her peers clarified their goals the second time around.
Christina Little, the school psychologist who advises Feminists United along with teacher Sue Denis, said the club’s members are inspirational.
“I’m totally amazed and awed by them,” Ms. Little said. “It was something I was thinking a lot about recently. When I met Natalie and she was expressing her ideas and thoughts, it was therapeutic to me to hear young people seeing what was going on in the world and wanting to do something positive about it.”
Mr. Nichols said it’s great to see students standing up for what they believe in.
“You want to empower high-school-aged women and give them everything they need to realize their full potential,” he said. “If part of that is making them aware of issues in our society that perhaps make it difficult for them to achieve their goals, and teaching them how to navigate them, then that’s a good thing.”
Feminists United has 24 members in grades 9 through 12 — including one male student. Members say there has already been backlash from other students — male and female alike — who have doubted the need for the club, and claimed the group is just too sensitive.
“We knew from the beginning this was going to come,” Natalie said, “but I think we’re ready to fight the fight.”